This article will be updated when we have more information and the Covid-19 situation evolves.
Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM) provides livelihoods for about 40 million people worldwide, representing 90% of the gold mining sector workforce and generating around 20% of their annual production.
Analysis carried out by the Alliance for Responsible Mining and Solidaridad
In the context of the global crisis generated by COVID-19, this population is exposed to a number of particular vulnerabilities that need to be urgently assessed at the global, national and local levels to take action to mitigate their impact.
To date, organizations such as the Artisanal Gold Council and Levin Sources, Planet Gold among others, have publicly issued relevant analyses of global and specific geographic challenges. Joining this effort, the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) and Solidaridad have prepared this text on the situation of the ASM gold sector in Colombia, one of the countries in which both organizations currently operate. The information analyzed was sourced from producers on the ground across the country. It is expected that further efforts can be made to analyze other regions in detail, and that this text can be updated and strengthened as the situation evolves.
As of the date of this analysis (April 6), 206 countries and regions have reported confirmed cases with global infections topping 1,2 million with more than 65,000 deaths. The pandemic has generated an unprecedented public health crisis in recent times. The measures being taken to contain it have halted the extraction of some raw materials, the production of manufactured goods and the provision of services, created supply-chains disruptions and triggered a significant drop in consumption, which has led to a complex economic paralysis.
Colombia, which has more than a thousand cases and 19 deaths to date, is under strong social distancing and quarantine measures that will be in force for at least two more weeks, though it may be extended over several months. These measures have exposed the vulnerability of a large part of the population that earns their livelihood from the informal economy and has no guarantees against the interruption of their activities.
The Colombian ASM sector, which has persistent levels of informality and comprises around 400,000 people – mainly rural people, with low educational levels, high concentration of Afro-descendant and Afro-Colombian communities, victims of the conflict, and female heads of household, with little or no saving capacity and limited access to financial services – is and will be living situations of extreme vulnerability.
Given this situation, Decree Law 457 of 2020 – issued by the Presidency of the Republic to give instructions in the face of the emergency – authorized the continuation of the activities necessary to ensure “the operation (…) of the supply logistics chain, supplies for the production, sourcing, import, export, and provision of minerals” during the quarantine. This exception, according to the statement made by the Ministry of Mines and Energy which is about to issue an official circular on the subject, would seem to exclusively apply to the coal sector as it plays an essential role in power generation, which would imply that all the extraction activities for other minerals should come to a halt. In addition, as of date various monetary and in-kind support have been made available to affected citizens and companies in all sectors.
Understanding this context, this analysis indicates the existence of three different segments within the sector which have specific challenges and needs, and makes some recommendations.
Artisanal (“subsistence” according to Colombian law) and small-scale miners without access to formal markets
Due to their continuous use of mercury and/or their proximity to heavy machinery – for example, communities in alluvial mining areas in the Bajo Cauca Antioquia region, among others -, or due to the absence of authorized buyers in other municipalities such as Suárez in Cauca, numerous gold panners and mineral selectors in the country have been excluded from formal markets and stopped their activity in recent weeks. In the case of those who work near heavy machinery, machinery owners have denied access to the extraction sites, where hundreds of people can come together, due to the high risk of infection. Those involved in mineral selection have been affected by the closure of mining operations from which they obtain mining waste. In both cases, the population has stopped receiving income, now having limited or no alternatives to replace this activity in the short term. Considering that this group comprises a disproportionate number of women, this situation further deepens existing vulnerabilities related to gender inequalities, thus exacerbating the basic rights of families and children.
Artisanal miners involved in formal supply chains
In other areas of the country such as Chocó and Tolima, a significant number of artisanal miners have eliminated the use of mercury and are connected to formal supply chains. Considering that they depend on local authorized buyers to sell their mineral and many of them suspended operations almost two weeks ago, it is likely that miners have also stopped working, although it is difficult to determine as they work in small groups on riverbeds and streams in isolated rural areas.
These buyers reported March 24 as the last date of service, around which greater affluence of miners attending their facilities was recorded, as a result of the need for cash to stock up on food in the face of the quarantine.
Given the high economic dependence of some municipalities such as Istmina, Condoto, and Quibdó (Choco) on gold panning, the local mayors have advocated the possibility of this population continuing their work following hygiene and social distancing precautions. In this regard, they have been open to the possibility that the authorized traders reestablish their operations so that miners do not lose their income or find themselves having to sell their mineral to informal traders at prices that could be up to 30% lower, which contributes to the black market, does not generate royalties for the State and increases the risk of benefiting outlaw groups.
It is also important to mention that the presence of armed groups in the working areas of these populations may represent a risk for them, given that some incidents have been reported in which these groups have distributed leaflets threatening those who do not strictly comply with quarantine measures with armed actions.
Formal small-scale miners
A large number of cooperatives and associations of formal small miners in areas such as Nariño, Antioquia, Cauca, and Huila have ceased their operations due to legal and road restrictions that prevent workers from commuting to work sites. These small businesses, which have limited production and savings capacity and have been traditionally excluded from the financial sector, are unable to assume the payroll and social security costs of their employees, which is a concern in some municipalities whose economies depend almost entirely on the activity and income derived from these small operations.
Some of these companies have accumulated mineral which, at the moment, they have no possibility of transferring to the cities where the national traders are located (e.g., Medellín) due to the suspension of commercial flights in which the material is traditionally transported.
International Market Considerations
On a global scale, some of the main companies that buy gold from Colombian artisanal and small-scale miners have suspended their operations, while increasing logistical disruptions make it difficult to transport gold, which will reduce demand for the mineral and probably lead to a widespread drop in the price offered at the local and national levels as it has been observed in African  and South American countries.
Available measures and recommendations
- Unemployed artisanal miners are extensively included in the vulnerable population prioritized by the national government to receive humanitarian aid (according to their SISBEN (Social Programs Beneficiary System), they may benefit from ”Familias en Acción” and Programs for the Elderly Families as well as VAT refunds and in-kind/food support.) In this respect, it is key to ensure effective and timely dissemination and reception, adopting a differential approach and taking into account the ethnicity and remote location of some of those communities.
- Apart from this priority population, there are also other groups of subsistence miners who, due to their age or because they do not have any dependent children, will not be able to access any of this aid. It is important to identify these people and offer different support as protection for their unemployment status (e.g., the Solidarity Income Program.)
Recommended measures to facilitate the continuity of the artisan activity through formal chains and the sale of the accumulated mineral for as long as the markets remain active.
- Assess the level of risk in public order matters in those municipalities affected by the armed groups presence to determine whether it is feasible to continue gold panning activities carried out by individuals or small groups on rivers or streams. Provide support to ensure security, if needed.
- Prepare and widely disseminate official guidelines for hygiene and protection when sourcing, transporting and selling minerals to avoid the risk of infection as much as possible. The protocol should include procedures for hand disinfection, cash and mineral handling, the maximum number of people that can be inside the facilities, and adherence to entry restriction measures – ID-based movement restrictions- to go to shops, among others, as have been provided for other sectors
- Authorize air transportation of minerals on charter or cargo flights to the national collection centers. This should be valid for the mineral extracted through artisanal activities from now on and the one that is accumulated through formal small-scale operations.
- Continuity in the activities advisability in the activities held by the National Mining Agency (ANM, for its acronym in Spanish) in relation to the processing of royalty payments and the National Tax and Customs Office (DIAN, for its acronym in Spanish) in customs and export procedures.
In light of the growing logistical barriers of the international market and the possibility of exports being suspended, it is recommended:
- That the Colombian Central Bank consider developing schemes for gold purchase from subsistence and small-scale mining, in accordance with the law provision, supported by relevant authorities.
To support small mining businesses that have suspended their activities, it is recommended:
- That possibilities should be provided for the small-scale gold sector to access support measures and credit facilities for companies that have been provided by the National Government (“Colombia Responde” and “Colombia Agro Produce” programs), in parallel with a prompt process of opening bank accounts. This will enable associations and cooperatives, that have their operations in order and are backed by international initiatives and certifications of responsible mining, to continue paying salaries to their employees during this contingency.
- That the expiration terms of concession contracts and licenses should be extended, as well as the response times for mining and environmental requirements for as long as this atypical situation continues.
Finally, it is also essential to mention the important role that medium and large-scale mining companies and socially responsible traders can play at this difficult time as they have already been involved in humanitarian aid with the communities in their areas of influence.
Broad coordination of the sector involving its associations, authorities, communities and the social sector may result in more significant and lasting positive impacts.
In conclusion, in the face of the complex situation experienced by the sector and the entire world, it is necessary to reflect on the importance of rethinking our consumption habits and our economic and social structures as it has become evident that they do not seem to be in favor of the general well-being of communities and citizens, which is exacerbated in times of crisis. Responsible production initiatives throughout the commodities sectors are a pioneering front in prioritizing social and environmental sustainability in extractive sectors such as gold mining, and these will certainly have an essential role in the upcoming months and years following this situation. According to the lessons learned, we call for solidarity with the commitment of consumers, producers, donors and governments to do so.
IISD. 2018. Global Trends on Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM): A Review of Key Numbers and Issues. Available at: https://www.iisd.org/sites/default/files/ publications / igf-asm-global-trends.pdf
Source: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019. Retrieved on April 6, 2020.
Seccatore, J., Veiga, M., Origliasso C., Marin, T., deTomi, G. 2014. An estimation of the artisanal small-scale production of gold in the world. Science of the Total Environment. Pp. 662–667.
 Telmer, K. 2020. Possible Impacts of COVID-19 on Artisanal Gold Mining Communities. Artisanal Gold Council. Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/possible -impacts-covid-19-artisanal-gold-mining-kevin-telmer /